Wednesday, June 20, 2007

So What Do Motorists Really Think of Us?

Those of us who take riding seriously on any level wear our helmets. Some of us choose to wear them but not all the time. Helmets can and do save lives. More importantly, helmets in combination with the rest of the protective riding gear help to save lives and lessen serious injuries and recovery time.

But what do those folks in cars and trucks think when they see a person riding a two wheeler? How do they react to a rider wearing a helmet? How about riders not wearing helmets?

This question has plagued me for years. You see, I'm one of those riders whose attitude is focussed on being aware of your surroundings first and foremost. I rode for twenty years without a helmet. Never got into a scrape. I rode Milwaukee, Chicago and outlying areas in all kinds of weather. I firmly believed as I do now that anticipation and riding within one's ability is paramount. I'd seen generations of families who rode sans helmet. Rarely was there ever a crash. I can only think of one which involved a head injury and that person was drunk. Most often people wore leathers neck to feet and while you heard the occasional stories about people going down, a broken limb was about the worst of it.

I can hear people's teeth grinding as they read this.


This is not about the usefulness of wearing helmets. This is about how we are percieved by non riding motorists we share the road with.

Not too long ago I decided to ride without my helmet. I did it for about a week or so. I discovered something truly odd. Something which stuck with me and made me ask all sorts of questions.

Why are people in cars and trucks behaving like this? Am I reading something into what I seem to be experiencing or not?

I told a few people what I'd been doing. Non riders acted like they had a say in the matter. Some riders really got mad at me for not wearing a helmet. Others considered what I said and actually made the connection I'm trying to make here. For you. I feel the last group of respondants were the most objective. Looking at this from the perspective of the average motorist, you start to get an idea of the safety risk catagories they choose to put us in by their perception of the situation.

In other words, when they see safety gear on a rider, their perception is more likely to be that the rider is safer to drive in closer proximity to. When they see a rider without safety gear they recognize, such as the ubiquitous helmet, they might think that rider is crazy and give the person more road space.

Think I'm the one whose crazy? Here's an honest to goodness study done bearing out the average perception of the non motorcycle riding motorist. These road tests were done in traffic. In situations with and without helmets. While the study was done with bicyclists in mind, I think this correlates perfectly to motorcyclists. Again, I'm not questioning the benefit of wearing helmets. I'm interested in how we are percieved and treated by non riding motorists we share the road with.

The above study was done to collect data about drivers who actually see the bicyclists they share the road with. Anticipating hazards and riding accordingly is still our, the riders' full responsibility.

One of the most potentially harmful situations we face while riding has more to do with whether we're seen by other motorists and how we're percieved by those motorists.

If they see you, will they "respect" your position on the road?

Does the gear you wear give them any reasons to choose whether or not to give you more riding space?

If they don't, are you prepared for it?

In general it seems people in cars and trucks think we don't belong on their roads. That we're crazy to be riding our motorcycles and scooters alongside them. And for some reason, they're willing to believe a mere helmet must mean that guy on the bike is safer than the one they saw earlier without a helmet. My experience seems to be in line with the above study. It would appear motorists equate a helmeted motorcyclist having enough protection that they (motorists) can drive into our legal space without worry. After all, that rider's helmet means they're safe and we can use a little of their space if we want to.




CodyandMichelle said...

Wow, interesting theory. As a FF/Medic, I don't agree with not wearing a helmet. Since FL repealed the helmet laws, Brain trauma and deaths have skyrocketed. What many two wheelers don't get Harv, is that we the taxpayer get hit with many of their medical bills one way or another. You live in a rural area Harv, have you really dealt with the day to day traffic that many of us do?
And, is it really the cagers who perceive us as protected because we ride with safety gear, thus endangering our lives more, or is it the fact that many geared up dudes feel more willing to take risks thus causing more accidents. I myself am guilty of riding with more confidence since getting a full face. That isn't a necessary a good thing. Less protection= more awareness, IMO.
"Cagers don't feel we belong on the road" That's a bit of a prejudiced statement. Sorry Harv, I'm really not agreeing with much of what you are saying on this blog, but i still luv you man lol.

American Scooterist Blog said...

Cody; as the post states, I've ridden the big city. Milwaukee, Chicago and the twin cities. I'm used to riding in the city but its not anywhere as fun as where I now live.

Second, the post wasn't about wearing helmets or not wearing them. The post is about how people percieve and treat us if we're wearing helmets or we aren't.

The "cager" comment sounds a lot more prejediced than what I wrote, if you think about it. You're giving motorists a derogatory name to prove a point about being prejudicial. I guess Einstein happened to be one of the good krauts lol.
Most motorists don't want motorcycles on "their" roads. I stand by that statement and that's more their prejudice than ours. I'm just stating a fact I've heard come out of more people's mouths than I can remember. And these comments come from people who probably don't know they're saying it to a riding enthusiast.

As best I can tell you're missing the point of the whole post. The point is, and its been proven by a study with bicyclists, that on average people who wear helmets will have drivers drive closer to them than people who don't. The whole entire point of this is that while we wear the gear to be more protected, the general public thinks that's enough reason to risk getting closer to us than they might have had they seen us without helmets. They imagine since we're safer because we wear helmets, they can more justifyably risk invading our space because they want to.

Lastly, the cost of death can only be determined at the time of a specific individual's demise. Just because a person might wear all the proper gear it doesn't guarantee that over the long run pain medication or outpatient care for what seemed a lesser injury than immediate death at the time of the crash, won't ultimately cost more. The cost of death goes on us all no matter what the age of our passing is. I'd be more apt to believe that when health care runs out for the elderly, it will cost us all multiple times more than it did for the people who died while they were still paying into the system. Death will come whether we ride or not. And so may accidents. I refuse to live my life in fear. I choose a healthy respect but I don't believe the cost on my neighbors will be less because I lived to die at a later date. The older you get, the more it costs.

With real freedom comes real responsibility. The more freedom one has, the bigger the risk. And the more thought it takes to weigh the consequences beforehand.


bryce said...

Interesting theory, but one I don't plan to try for myself. I feel naked without it and there are so many things other than cars around me to want a helmet for.

In a way, I'm not surprised that this is how things seem to be.

American Scooterist Blog said...

Bryce, I totally agree. Although I took the risk, I just don't feel right without the helmet anymore. The way I see it, its important to know there are people who will deem us as riders to be more safe and therefore feel comfortable risking our own safety more. I almost hit numerous birds today. The other day it was pheasants. Way too many reason to wear a helmet besides just other motorists. And I just bought a modular helmet. Coolest thing since motorcycles.


Bryce said...

I've ridden sans helmet on several occasions. There is something that feels cool about it, I've got to admit. However, after several near misses and brushes with pain or death, I just feel naked without one now. I get so caught up thinking about what could happen that I can't devote enough attention to the ride.

Interesting that you're getting a modular helmet. I went from open face to modular (had two), and I'm going to get a Snell approved full face. I'm also defying conventional wisdom and getting a flat black one.

American Scooterist Blog said...

A good helmet is a good helmet. Naturally if they fit right it makes all the difference. I like the idea of this modular because it has the sun vosor you can flick down or out of the way. No more needing to bring sun glasses along. Even better, no squinting into the sun if you change direction. I was completely surprised how well that VOX helmet actually fits. And the finish is surprisingly decent.


Sean Archer said...

I think the theory fits, and I've seen guys riding sanely without helmets just as often as I've seen guys with helmets riding like dicks.

When it comes to helmets, I tend to go along with what my friend Emily said to me once: "Sean, if I hit somebody on a motorcycle who isn't wearing a helmet, there is a way bigger chance that I will kill them than there would be if they were wearing one. That makes me responsible for their death as opposed to just an injury. How dare they put that on me?"